Big stone: How roaming pastoralists built mega-henges across Europe

Remarkable remains have been found buried underground in the graves of Neolithic farming people across Europe who lived from about 8000BCE to 3000BCE, which is when the first bronze tools and weapons appear, and what is known as the Bronze Age begins. Mostly, people were buried together, men and women equally, in large communal graves called barrows. Studies of their bones have shown that these people did not generally die as a result of violence.

More than 10,000 tombs and barrows are known in western Europe alone. They are called "megalithic" because huge structures are often to be found near these graves, usually built from large blocks of local stone. Many were set upright in circles, like the sites in England at Stonehenge and Avebury. Elsewhere they were constructed as temples, with altar tables at one end or in the centre. Famous examples such as Hagar Qim and Mnajdra survive on the island of Malta.

Many thousands of megalithic structures still stand as monuments to farming people who spread out from the Near East with their domesticated animals and seeds from about 7000BCE. Mostly they travelled along the coasts by sea, and up river valleys such as those of the Danube and the Rhine, fertile areas with rich soil and plentiful moisture for their crops. Some skirted around the Mediterranean coasts, establishing themselves on islands such as Malta. They then travelled north, settling in Portugal, northern Spain and Brittany before reaching England, Ireland, Wales and as far up as the Orkney islands off the coast of Scotland, where some of the best-preserved structures and stone houses still remain.

These people deliberately started to change the natural environment around them to support their new agricultural lifestyles. Between 6000BCE and 3000BCE, millions of trees were cut down all over Europe to make way for fields. Large areas of open moorland such as Dartmoor and Exmoor in the West Country of England were formerly ancient forests, cut down by Neolithic farmers to provide open areas to grow crops and graze livestock. They needed to do this so they could settle permanently in small villages and towns – with some communities growing as large as 500 inhabitants.

There is no evidence to suggest that these people were violent. As at Harappa, there is no trace of a dominant ruling class. Objects buried alongside dead early Neolithic people were typically figures of goddesses, not axes, arrowheads or spears. The absence of violent deaths, fortifications and weapons of war suggest that these were peaceful times. Villages were built along fertile valley floors, not at the tops of hills, implying that territorial aggression, invasion and terror were little known.

Like the population in the Indus Valley, early European Neolithic farmers were sophisticated and technologically advanced. They too had a distinctive form of written symbolism. Objects covered with swirling whorls and spiral shapes have been found at more than a hundred megalithic sites across Europe. It is likely that these inscriptions were some form of communication between the people and their gods and goddesses in the world beyond.

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